By Jim Molnar

Special to the Toronto Star Saturday, May 29, 1999.

I fly lot, usually in steerage, and I'm old enough to remember the sensation of reclining in a seat noticeably wider than my hips, with enough room in front of me to stretch and bend all the way over as they show on the crash-safety card.

I remember breathable air.

I also remember how calm and comfortable flight attendants seemed when they each had a reasonable number of passengers to deal with.

Oh I know that we, you and I, by demanding the lowest possible fares, have helped fuel the vicious circle on which we've spun out of coach-class into something even less: bus-class, if you will.

I seem to remember that 20 or 30 years ago coach-class seating (a.k.a. steerage) was more like some business-class accommodation today, at least in terms of space for bodies and baggage.

Ah, but such nostalgia is not only painful. It's wasteful. The old planes have gone the way of free headphones, leg room, butt room, good air, carry-on luggage, unharried flight attendants and agents, air fares one can bank on, not today's air-fare roulette.

Which brings me to an anonymous piece of writing that's been making the rounds on various Internet sites for a couple of years now. It was reprinted in the trade publication Travel Weekly.

For those of you who haven't seen it -- and for those of you who simply want to enjoy it again and admire its righteousness and good humour, here it is:

It's Called If Airlines Sold Paint.

Customer:
Hi, how much is your paint?

Clerk:
Well, sir, that all depends.

Customer:
Depends on what?

Clerk:
Actually, a lot of things.

Customer:
How about giving me an average price?

Clerk:
Wow, that's too hard a question. The lowest price is $3 a litre, and we have 150 different prices up to $70 a litre.

Customer:
What's the difference in the paint?

Clerk:
Oh, there isn't any difference; it's all the same paint.

Customer:
Well, then, I'd like some of that $3 paint.

Clerk:
Well, first I need to ask you a few questions. When do you intend to use it?

Customer:
I want to paint tomorrow, on my day off.

Clerk:
Sir, the paint for tomorrow is the $70 paint.

Customer:
What? When would I have to paint in order to get the $3 version?

Clerk:
That would be in three weeks, but you will also have to agree to start painting before Friday of that week and continue painting until at least Sunday.

Customer:
You've got to be kidding!

Clerk:
Sir, we don't kid around here. Of course, I'll have to check to see if we have any of that paint available before I can sell it to you.

Customer:
What do you mean check to see if you can sell it to me? You have shelves full of that stuff; I can see it right there.

Clerk:
Just because you can see it doesn't mean that we have it. It may be the same paint, but we sell only a certain number of gallons on any given weekend. Oh, and by the way, the price just went to $5.

Customer:
You mean the price went up while we were talking!

Clerk:
Yes, sir. You see, we change prices and rules thousands of times a day, and since you haven't actually walked out of the store with your paint yet, we just decided to change. Unless you want the same thing to happen again, I would suggest that you get on with your purchase. How many litres do you want?

Customer:
I don't know exactly. Maybe 15 litres. Maybe I should buy 20 litres just to make sure I have enough.

Clerk:
Oh, no, sir, you can't do that. If you buy the paint and then don't use it, you will be liable for penalties and possible confiscation of the paint you already have.

Customer:
What?

Clerk:
That's right. We can sell you enough paint to do your kitchen, bathroom, hall and north bedroom, but if you stop painting before you do the bedroom, you will be in violation of our tariffs.

Customer:
But what does it matter to you whether I use all the paint? I already paid you for it!

Clerk:
Sir, there is no point in getting upset that's just the way it is. We make plans based upon the idea that you will use all the paint, and when you don't, it just causes us all sorts of problems.

Customer:
This is crazy! I suppose something terrible will happen if I don't keep painting until after Saturday night!

Clerk:
Yes, sir, it will.

Customer:
Well, that does it! I'm going somewhere else to buy my paint.

Clerk:
That won't do you any good, sir. We all have the same rules. Thanks for painting with our airline.

Jim Molnar is a columnist with the Seattle Times.

Printed with permission. Copyright Alan H. Hess, 1998. All rights reserved.

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